His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett and Eliot


In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.

It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)

As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.


(Lucie McNeill photo)

He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all.  The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.

People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan, who changed the face of music. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) At 75, Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.


A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.

Never expect the expected from Bob. A reverse chameleon, changing to ensure he does not fit it. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:

 And if my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

 A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more  or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.

Song to Woody.    He Was a Friend of Mine.    Who Killed Davey Moore?

John Brown.    Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    Blowin’ in the Wind.

 Girl from the North Country.    Masters of War.    A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

 Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.    Farewell, Angelina.    Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

 The Times They Are A-Changin’.    The Ballad of Hollis Brown.    When the Ship Comes In.

 Boots of Spanish Leather.    With God on Our Side.    One Too Many Mornings.

 The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.    Chimes of Freedom.    It Ain’t Me Babe.

 To Ramona.    My Back Pages.    Subterranean Homesick Blues.    She Belongs to Me.

 It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.    Maggie’s Farm.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.     Mr. Tambourine Man.    It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

 Gates of Eden.    Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.    It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

 Like a Rolling Stone.    Queen Jane Approximately.    Ballad of a Thin Man.

 Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.    Desolation Row.    Visions of Johanna.

 Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.    I Shall Be Released.    All Along the Watchtower.

 I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.    I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.    I Threw It All Away.

 Day of the Locusts.    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.    Forever Young.

 On a Night Like This.    Simple Twist of Fate.    Shelter From the Storm.

If You See Her, Say Hello.    Tangled Up in Blue.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.    Hurricane.    Romance in Durango.

 Black Diamond Bay.    Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

 Gotta Serve Somebody.    Slow Train.     I Believe in You.    Every Grain of Sand.

 Angelina.    Blind Willie McTell.    I and I.    Jokerman.    Licence to Kill.

 When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.    Dark Eyes.    Political World.

 Everything is Broken.    Man in the Long Black Coat.    Most of the Time (bootleg version).

 What Was It You Wanted?    Series of Dreams.    Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.    Highlands.

 Not Dark Yet.    Cold Irons Bound.    Mississippi (first bootleg version).

High Water (for Charley Paton).    Things Have Changed.    Nettie Moore.

 Workingman’s Blues #2.    The Levee’s Gonna Break.    Ain’t Talkin’.

 Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity.    Red River Shore.    Huck’s Tune.

 Tell Ol’ Bill.    ‘Cross the Green Mountain.    It’s All Good.    Titanic.





A confirmed atheist from birth, I nevertheless fell under the spell of Christmas carols early on in my twisted, hippie life. I well remember a time when, in the days leading to Christmas, CBC Radio would broadcast the singing of carols every morning from the Timothy Eaton’s Store in Toronto. And this was no professional choir. The singers were the shoppers, and whoever else showed up to carol at 8.30 a.m., when the half-hour live broadcast began. Complete with coughing, the grave, echo-y announcements of the next carol, the audible rustling of the carol sheets and finally, the glorious sound of all those voices raised on high, it was an indelible part of my “child’s Christmas in Newmarket”.

I can tell you they never did Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. Maybe a spirited rendition of Jingle Bells might have slipped in, but these were the real carols, the ones we seem to have forgotten how to sing in this age of cultural sensitivity. You know, with all that stuff about the heavenly hosts, angels on high, shepherds watching their flocks, “three Kings of Orient are” (tried to smoke a rubber cigar….) and so many other elements of the wondrous Christmas story back there in Bethlehem, how still we see the lie. Who knew what “lowing” even meant, until Away in the Manger?

These marvellous carols were everywhere at Christmas when I was a kid, and mercifully, they did not start until well into December. They still mean Christmas to me, and I miss them, for all the excellent, non-carol seasonal songs out there (“The fire is slowly dying/And my dear we’re still good-bying/But as long as you love me so/Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”)

Another musical tradition that’s gone by the doors is combing record store shelves for yet another album of Christmas music. I’ve got a lot of them. I once ran into the great Roy Forbes at A & B Sound’s extensive Christmas Music section. He was on the same annual quest for musical treasures, as I was. Alas, A & B Sound is long gone, and so are record stores with large selections of Christmas music beyond Bing Crosby, Michael Buble and a few lacklustre others. Is there nowhere to buy Christmas Turkey by the Arrogant Worms, or Yogi Yorgesson’s I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas?

Anyway, enough of that. Herewith, restricted to records I have at home, my Top 10 List of Favourite Christmas albums, the last you are likely to read this year. It is Christmas Eve, after all. Better late than never.

  1. “What a remarkable boy…”

 I just realized I can’t really pick a 10th album and eliminate so many other fine albums I cherish as part of my cool Yule. Here are some of them: The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (Kate and Anna McGarrigle), Santa Baby (best of my many CD collections, led off by Sarah MacLachlan and River), It’s Christmas (Quartette), Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, if only for The Rebel Jesus), Christmas With the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.), A Merry 1940’s Christmas (Collection by Collector’s Choice Music), A Merrie Christmas to You (Blue Rodeo), Christmas (Two albums, same title: Bruce Cockburn and Colin James), Bright Day * Star (The Baltimore Consort), A Very Special Christmas (Springsteen, U2, The Pointer Sisters, The Pretenders, Madonna et al, for the Special Olympics) and, of course, the unforgettable rarity, Kolędy W Wykonaniu Zespołu (Z Kościola Akademickiego Św. Anny W Warszawie).

  1. Soul Christmas

 Nothing says Christmas like Clarence Carter’s salute to festive ribaldry, Back Door Santa. Was there ever a naughtier “Ho Ho Ho”? Other highlights: Otis Redding’s White Christmas (no comment…), and The Christmas Song by King Curtis.

Image 15

  1. Handel’s Messiah.

 No Christmas is complete without this magnificent oratorio. There’s really nothing quite like it. When I’m not at a live performance or tuning in to CBC, I like to listen to a highlight package I have on Phillips Classics, featuring…oh never mind. I’ve never heard of any of them. Me bad. But it’s great. I’m not religious (see above), but surely, as some have suggested, when he penned the Messiah, Handel was touched by the hand of God.

  1. Selection of Merry Christmas

 As you might be able to tell by the title, this comes from a cheapo record store in Hong Kong that specialized in likely pirated knock-offs. But it’s a great two CD collection of just about all the Christmas songs I like, both carols and non-carols. There’s not a Frosty, Rudolph or mommy kissing Santa Claus in the bunch. I’ve got a lot of traditional Christmas carol records, but I chose this one because of the mixture. Hard to beat Der Bingle closing out the 36-song set with the best Christmas song ever written by a Jew, White Christmas. And, as a special treat, tho oddly, there’s Billie Holiday’s version of God Bless the Child.

  1. A Child’s Christmas in Wales

 And of course the version read so beautifully by its author, Dylan Thomas. I’m not sure why anyone else bothers to try. I notice something different and delightful every listening. The last time, it was the way Thomas refers so anonymously and yet so memorably to “the uncles” and “the aunts”. No names, but you picture them perfectly. A tip of the hat to the CBC’s Sheryl MacKay and North By Northwest for airing A Child’s Christmas in Wales every year in the week before Christmas.

  1. Blue Christmas

 Listen to Elvis Presley’s definitive version of Blue Christmas, then open a vein, weep, or down another vat of whiskey. But that’s far from all on this keeper of an album. Renew your cheer with the best rocking version ever of Here Comes Santa Claus and even, gasp, Santa Claus is Back in Town. Carols and White Christmas, Too. As good a selection of Christmas songs as there is, beautifully sung by Elvis at the peak of his career. This album has had many re-issues. My vinyl version is a fairly early one, but not the original.

Image 13

  1. Bluegrass & White Snow, A Mountain Christmas

 It’s hard to imagine how this Christmas bluegrass album by Patty Loveless could be any better. A sublime mixture of traditional carols beautifully sung by Loveless, bluegrass instrumentals and some sweet, Loveless originals. In fact, this is the album I put on for a jolt of Christmas spirit, whenever I feel dragged down by shopping among the masses (talk about cattle lowing…) and my never-far-away Scrooge-like gloom.

  1. Phil Spector’s Christmas Album

 The coolest, most frantic, most waaay out there Yuletide collection ever. The mad genius put his legendary Wall of Sound and “stable” of wild girl singers to work on a dozen classic Christmas songs, and the result was pure magic. From the first notes of White Christmas by the amazing Darlene Love, to the final strains of Silent Night, it’s a wild, wild ride. There are stops along the way for Frosty the Snowman by the Ronettes and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by the Crystals. Inevitably, perhaps, someone recently observed , Grinch-like, “Who’d’ve thought such a great Christmas album could be produced by someone who became a crazed murderer?”

Image 14

  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas

 Pretty well a perfect album, combining both swinging jazz melodies and the spirit of Christmas. The music is so gentle, yet so evocative. Does anything say Christmas more than the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s version of O Tannenbaum? And it fits the animated, TV classic like a woolen mitt. I recently re-watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time in ages. I’d forgotten how movingly it depicts the Christmas story. Yes, the manger, the shepherds, the star on high, the carols, and those lovely passages from the New Testament, which were such a part of my Christmas, too, all those years ago. I’m not a believer, as I’ve said, but who could deny the wonder and narrative drama of the birth of Jesus. I still love it, and these days, at Christmas, I kind of wish it were more prevalent.

  1. En Riktig Svensk Jul.

No record takes me back to magical Christmas mornings in Newmarket more than this wonderful collection of traditional Swedish Christmas tunes. I’m not sure who bought it or when, but it seemed to be always on our ancient turntable, as we unwrapped our presents. At least one of these songs shows up in Ingmar Bergman’s movie masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander. With a rollicking pace pretty well all the way through, the record puts a lie to the widespread theory that “jolly Swedes” is an oxymoron. It meant most to my mother, who came from a Swedish-speaking family in Finland. She grew up with many of these songs. We lost her just after Christmas seven years ago. I still play the album every year, but now there is a touch of sadness. RIP, mom. God Jul och Gott Nytt År!

Image 10

Finally, I do have a Grinch side, so it’s only fitting to also nominate two of the worst Christmas albums I know. I’m sorry, Bob, but one of them is your recent croaking collection, Christmas In The Heart, tho I do love Must Be Santa. The other, candelabras down, is Twas The Night Before Christmas by the late, flamboyant phony Liberace.

Image 10

On that ludicrous note, Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.










Destination: sweet, verdant, diminutive, demilitarized Costa Rica. I hadn’t been for more than 30 years, when being an 500px-Congo11independent traveller meant a toughened bum from endless bumps on jarring, ramshackle buses. But the sight of a storied DC-3 drifting over the hills and swooping down on the tiny, deserted runway of Quepos to carry us back to San José was worth every ache and pain. I felt like Errol Flynn in one of those jungle movies. That was then.

There were no DC-3’s or local buses on this trip. Since some friends were coming along, we opted for a package tour, organized by a British adventure tour company. It was far from luxury, but it exacted a good chunk of change, nevertheless, and promised access to top sites, exotic birds, and beach. Not everything went well. I like a good whine when I know about. (Rest assured i loved the trip, just having fun with the stuff that went wrong. Not to be taken too seriously.…)

  1. Black Top cab to the airport didn’t arrive for 25 minutes. When unapologetic driver finally showed up, he refused to take us to the airport! “It’s the end of my shift,” he said. Unbelievable. We called another taxi and still made our flight. But never again, Black Top.
  1. We were booked into the Tournon Hotel, on the fringes of a dodgy area of San José. I soon thought of it as the Tournoff Hotel. Cheerless. Sad, intermittent shower. Far worse was the din after dark. Just outside our room, cars and motorcycles roared by all night. Sleep, perchance to toss and turn.
  2. On night number two, the wee small hours were even noisier. Traffic streaming by. Then the sound of an accident. Bang! Angry voices. Arguments. Shouting. Not long afterwards: “Pow!” Gunshot? Blown tire? We didn’t check. More yelling. The overnight symphony was capped by earsplitting music from someone’s “ghetto blaster” at 4 a.m. At least we had something to talk about over our pretty-awful breakfast of ice-cold camembert served with broken crackers.
  3. As we gathered to board our mini-bus for the outlying charms of Costa Rica, we discovered the tour company couldn’t count. There weren’t the 12 voyagers on the company’s list, but 16 of us. Head-scratching by the tour guide, delays, repacking of luggage on the roof instead of inside the mini-bus. Full-up seating. Oh well, they were only out by 33 per cent. Math is hard.
  4. By the time we left, it was raining. Hard. Off we went to Poas Volcano, still active and featuring one of the largest craters in the world, plus a pristine crater lake. This is what we saw.

P1100351Here’s our happy group, actually chilled, besides being wet and miserable. The tropics, you say? P1100349 6. Overnight at La Fortuna. Because of the numbers snafu, our room was at the back of the rather nice motel, our only view one of whitewashed walls. Because chairs were put outside all those rooms facing the lush, tropical vegetation fronting the motel, we had chairs, too, for a delightful view of the wall, 10 feet away. 7. Next day we hiked a trail for a view of the spectacular, coned Arenal Volcano, which erupted in 1968 after hundreds of years of dormancy, destroying three villages and killing 87 people. One of Costa Rica’s most iconic images was enshrouded in thick clouds. This was as much of it as we saw.

  1. P11004608. After a long, afternoon drive over some devilish, “oh my god” roads, we crawled into the marvellous rainforest area of Monteverde. The rain stopped. There was even a rainbow. Our reward? Demotion from the two-star lodgings listed on our agenda into the rustic, one star, Jardines Hotel. No explanation. The sign was not encouraging.
  2. P1100680

Ours was fine, but rooms for some others in our group were so bad – windowless, containing bunk beds and not much else –alternative accommodation had to be found for them in town. Forceful, overnight winds rattled the more rickety rooms, blowing one person’s medical bag, complete with her diabetes kit, off the sink counter into the toilet bowl.

  1. Still tired, still grumpy, we travelled to our morning destination, the justly-celebrated Monteverde Rainforest. The tour company’s local agents failed to forward our pre-paid entrance fees, forcing us to fork out $17 from our own pockets. We did get the money back – the morning of our departure.
  2. Foregoing the adventuresome Zip Line, we opted for the more sedate Cloud Walk featuring hanging bridges through the tops of the rain forest. By the end, we were drenched by the driving, persistent rain. “Well, they do call it a rain forest,” a sodden somebody said. (Disclosure: despite the downpour, we loved every moment of it. Really a marvellous part of the world.)
  3. 11081094_10155325325155137_7716737726139166047_nDespite all the ballyhoo and those hundreds of postcards of colourful amphibians,  we saw no frogs. Not one.

Oh, all right. Even I can’t winge forever about a trip to a place as beautiful as Costa Rica. We saw many, truly wonderful birds, lots of wild monkeys, a three-toed sloth, an anteater, iguanas, crocodiles and a zillion vultures. The beaches, which we hit after the rainforest, were fabulous, and the living was easy. It’s always nice to be in a country with a national public health system and no army. “Pura Vida.” But next time, no tour company. Our way home was eased by the magical appearance of the world’s first rock video: Bob Dylan doing Subterranean Homesick Blues  (with Allan Ginsberg in the background), amid the humdrum dining atmosphere of the LA International Airport. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…” P1100970



Among the 100 or so great songs written by Bob Dylan, the mystical, Rimbaud-like Desolation Row is among his very best. Coming at the end of his wild, genre-busting album, Highway 61 Revisited, its 10 verses spread over 11 acoustic minutes are beautifully sung by the 24-year old Dylan. The lyrics are full of imagery and literary allusions so startling and dense I have yet to tire of them, even after 50 years (yikes!) and a hundred or more listenings. Each verse is a gem, a story in itself. On the rare occasion when Bob performs Desolation Row in concert, I feel proverbial shivers up and down me olde spine.

The long ballad opens with the haunting lines: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlour is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.” During the many years I used to puzzle over Dylan’s lyrics and what they could possibly mean, I came to accept that the words in Desolation Row painted nightmarish pictures, but nothing more.

As I eventually learned, however, the first and fourth lines of the song’s opening verse are based on a real event that remains shocking even today. It took place in the Lake Superior port city of Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born and lived until his family moved to Hibbing in 1947.

On June 15, 1920, far from the deep south, where lynchings were commonplace, an ugly mob stormed the local jailhouse and rousted out three terrified black men, who were in Duluth as part of a travelling circus. Accused of raping a white girl, they were given a hasty “street trial”, beaten and strung up from a lamppost at the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East.

1024px-Duluth-lynching-postcardAs if that weren’t bad enough, a photo was taken of the lynchers, posing proudly by their frontpage_smallmurderous handiwork. The photo was soon made into a postcard that circulated around Duluth for years. Dylan’s uncle remembered seeing such a postcard, when he was a youngster, and young Bob obviously heard him mention it. Hence: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…..The circus is in town.”

You can read the whole terrible story here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1920_Duluth_lynchings

One wintry weekend last November, my brother and I travelled south down Highway 61 in search of Dylan’s roots. Our first stop was the scene of the lynchings in Duluth. There is now an evocative memorial to the three dead men, put up by the city in 2003, across the street from the actual site. Presiding over a small plaza, it cast a sombre yet powerful spell on us both, despite the bitter cold and dusting of snow. I doubt if I will ever hear Desolation Row again, without thinking of those poor victims: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.

IMG_3823Then, we went to the modest, nicely-painted duplex where, for the first six years of Bob’s life, the Zimmerman’s resided on the second floor (right). The house is a mere five and a half blocks from the spot where Duluth had its night of infamy.

IMG_3834 And finally, here’s Dylan singing his great song. Live, in concert. Sit back and get lost, man. Not often you get Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35gheud5xBo




Woody Guthrie was a true original, one of those guys who emerge from the most unlikely of environments with a creative genius that comes from “God knows where”. Shakespeare, son of a glove merchant in 16th century England. Dickens, with the worst of fathers and starved provincial upbringing. Bob Dylan, raised in the mining wilds of Hibbing, Minnesota. And Woody, from a debt-ridden, small-town Oklahoma family, touched by disease and tragedy. But something within Woody Guthrie produced scores of some of the most evocative songs of the people ever written, and a life that was itself a page-turning novel. Would there have been Bob Dylan without his early idolatry and the inspiration of Woody Guthrie? Maybe not.

Woody never hit the big time as did Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams and a few others of his ilk. It’s not hard to figure out why. He was often chaos in motion, he hated Tin Pan Alley, and he was a man of the left, far more at home on the picket line than in a recording studio. He was content to scuffle through life, doin’ what came naturally.

Since it’s that time of year and better than the pop of champagne corks: herewith, Woody Guthrie’s homespun New Year’s Resolutions for 1942, a dark time when fascism had overrun virtually all of Europe. He called them his “New Years Rulin’s”. Some would not be out of place today. Happy New Year!

  1. Work more and better.
  2. Work by a schedule.
  3. Wash teeth if any.
  4. Shave.
  5. Take bath.
  6. Eat food – fruit, vegetables, milk.
  7. Drink very scant if any.
  8. Write a song a day.
  9. Wear clean clothes – look good.
  10. Shine shoes.
  11. Change socks.
  12. Change bed clothes often.
  13. Read lots good books.
  14. Listen to radio a lot.
  15. Learn people better.
  16. Keep rancho clean.
  17. Don’t get lonesome.
  18. Stay glad.
  19. Keeping hoping machine running.
  20. Dream good.
  21. Bank all extra money.
  22. Save dough.
  23. Have company but don’t waste time.
  24. Send Mary and kids money.
  25. Play and sing good.
  26. Dance better.
  27. Help win war – beat fascism.
  28. Love mama.
  29. Love papa.
  30. Love Pete.
  31. Love everybody.
  32. Make up your mind.
  33. Wake up and fight.


PETE SEEGER, 1919-2014.


For the longest time, I thought Pete Seeger would live up to the refrain of Earl Robinson’s famous song about Joe Hill: “I’ll never die, said he.” Seeger seemed to go on and on forever, his lean, beanpole frame, bobbing Adam’s apple and increasingly raspy voice somehow immune from elevation to the great Hootenanny in the Sky. Just last year, there he was at Farm Aid, age 93, getting everyone, including Willie Nelson and Neil Young, to sing along to Woody Guthrie’s evocative classic, This Land is Your Land. Ever the activist, rickety Pete tossed in a new verse about fracking. Yet the sad, inevitable news came late Monday night that Pete was no longer keeping on and had finally passed over to the great beyond.

What a long, amazing life. During his 94 years, Seeger touched every era of post-World War I America, a part of so many pivotal events. He hung out with Woody Guthrie, knew Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, sang on picket lines during the Dirty Unknown-1Thirties and post-war Forties, organized the seminal, union activist folk group The Almanac Singers which evolved into the famous Weavers, who, much to their anti-commercialism shock, became huge stars, selling millions of records, was blacklisted into a decade of oblivion, godfathered the folk music revival that gave us Bob Dylan, spearheaded a prolonged conservationist campaign to clean up the Hudson River, famously threatened to use an axe to cut the sound during Dylan’s barrier-shattering “electric” performance at Newport, marched with everyone, including the recent Occupy Wall Street folks and never lost his life-long drive for peace and justice. Inscribed on his battered, old banjo were the words: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

The legions of those who celebrated Pete Seeger ranged as far back as Carl Sandburg (“I would place [him] in the first rank of American folk singers.”), through Dylan (“He had this incredible ability to look at a group of people and make them part of the song, and it would be beautiful.”) to Bruce Springsteen (“He saw himself as a citizen/activist. He believed in a song’s ability to empower, and that’s the power of Pete Seeger.”).  President’s Obama’s tribute was particularly apt: “Over the years, Pete used his voice – and his hammer – to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights, world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along.”

Seeger was a radical, but once he shunned the shackles of the American Communist Party, he spoke out far more effectively on a myriad issues without an ideological strait-jacket. Through it all, he remained an incurable optimist, forever convinced that somehow, if we all got together, preferably by singing, we could yet create a better world. His fight for that kind of universal change died only in that New York hospital bed. He really did hammer all over this land.


Amid his activism and singing so many songs of others, Seeger also found time to write some terrific songs, himself. You’ve heard it a hundred times, but Where Have All the Flowers Gone remains a masterful composition of message and poetry. This is a particularly lovely version.

While I don’t have the Pete Seeger memories of some, I was in the crowd at Stanley Park when Pete and Woody’s son Arlo sang together as part of a free concert to raise money for Downtown Eastside residents evicted by unscrupulous landlords hoping to cash in on visitors to Expo 86. The concert, which also featured a vintage, acoustic set by DOA, was hastily arranged once Seeger, who was slated to play with Arlo at Expo 86, learned of the evictions.

More significantly, I was also present for a celebrated Pete Seeger moment at the 1989 Vancouver Folk Music Festival that has become lore among those who were there. Pete’s appearance was a dream come true for Festival founder Gary Cristall, who brought so many great artists to Vancouver, but, until then, never the great man Cristall had loved since he was knee high to a grasshopper.  I can attest to that from personal experience. Life being what it is, my family happened to be living upstairs from the Cristall family for a time in Toronto during the 1950’s. Young Gary was a rambunctious little sucker, but he loved folk music, and most of all, he was crazy about Pete Seeger. When Seeger showed up to play at Camp Naivelt, the legendary, left-wing, Jewish summer camp near Brampton, Gary was beside himself. He met his hero, and, I believe, secured his autograph. If only he had stopped talking about it….but I digress…

At that year’s folk festival, it rained. Really rained. By the time Seeger took part in a Sunday workshop with Billy Bragg, the area in front of the stage was a sea of slick, wet mud. No one wanted to sit down in the goo, so we all stood, much to Pete’s annoyance. People at the back can’t see, he complained. No one moved. Finally, Pete noticed a great big puddle on stage. You people out there seem to be afraid of getting a little wet, so I’ll be first, Seeger said. Whereupon he plunked his butt right down in the middle of the puddle. Seeing this 70-year old folk legend getting soaked shamed us all, and down into the mud we went. It was a wonderful, spontaneous gesture by a guy who had been sticking up for those at the back all his life. The 1989 folk fest has been known as The Wet Ass Festival ever since.

For the first time in nearly a hundred years, there is no Pete Seeger on this blessed earth, crusading to make it better. But the death of a 94-year old, even one as valorous as Seeger, is cause for sadness perhaps, but not for sorrow. Besides, he’s probably already hanging out with Joe Hill and Woody, organizing the angels and getting them to sing along, too.

RIP, Pete. It’s been a hell of a ride.


P.S.  I’d forgotten this: Pete Seeger’s concert at the Orpheum in 1986 on behalf of the Haida struggle to preserve Lyell Island.  This is a great look back at the event by organizer Janos Maté, which includes an illuminating exchange between Seeger and, of all people, Jack Munro.



You want stupid? I’ll give you stupid.

So it’s 1965, and I have been besotted by Bob Dylan for most of the past year. He’s to appear at Massey Hall, backed by a Yonge St. rock band known as Levon and the Hawks, who would later morph into some group called The Band. This is during Dylan’s historic tour after he’d “gone electric” at that July’s Newport Folk Festival, his bold, uncharted and incredibly controversial move that changed everything in music. The first half of the concert was to be acoustic, the second would include Levon Helm and the boys — all destined for the lovely, intimate concert space of Massey Hall. Click here for a remarkable interview with Dylan the next day.

But did I go? Ohhhhhh, no. Mr. High-and-Mighty Me was boycotting Dylan for “selling out”, for giving into crass commercialism by strapping on an electric guitar and abandoning his powerful protest songs. I still can’t believe what an idiot I was. Rarely a month goes by that I don’t think of and regret anew my stubborn, brain-dead decision.Adding to my idiocy was the fact I hadn’t even listened to the “new” Dylan.

That didn’t happen until 1966, when I had a summer job washing dishes at a UBC dining hall. A fellow dish-washer, tired of my ranting about Dylan, kindly offered to actually play Bringing It All Back Home for me. Off we went to his rented room. The evening was unforgettable. ImageFrom the first thrilling notes and words of crazy, raucous Subterranean Homesick Blues, to the last lingering tones of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, I was stunned. I had no idea. A year too late, but amid the company of so many others, the album totally transformed my musical life. I rushed out to buy it, then the even more ‘electric’ Highway 61 Revisited with, in Dylan’s memorable phrase, its “wild mercury sound”. I played them  over and over, analyzing the lyrics to death with fellow ‘Dylan freaks’. The Shakespeare of our age has been part of my life ever since.

Yet Bob had to start somewhere, and, as we all know, he boarded his rocket to fame as a young, scruffy folk singer. Which brings me to Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest in the ongoing, prodigious output of Joel and Ethan Coen.  The movie tackles the early 60’s folk scene in Greenwich Village. As with most films by the Coen brothers, it’s very well done, on the surface. They do a good job capturing the look and feel of that long lost but pivotal era, just before folk singers hit it big, particularly those who wrote their own songs. Even better if they penned protest ballads.  A few months after the movie seems to end, Dylan tossed off Blowin’ in the Wind, and the music business was never the same.

There are also some pretty fair depictions of those floating around the pre-Dylan folk scene at the time. The rumpled old manager “Mel” is modelled on Moe Asch of Folkway Records, and the caricature of Albert Grossman, who tells Llewyn Davis there’s “no money” in his music, is dead on. Grossman famously went on to manage both Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. The friendly “army guy” is based on Tom Paxton. He was in the army for a year or two, before emerging as one of the best of the new breed of folk singers. I must have played his album Ramblin’ Boy a hundred times. There are some beautiful songs, and  I have never tire of it.  There’s even a newspaper song. (“Daily News, daily blues. Pick up a copy any time you choose. Seven little pennies in the newsboy’s hand, and you ride right along to Never Never Land.”)

Sadly, however, like so many movies by the talented brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis lacks a heart. Davis, brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac, is mostly a jaded mediocrity with little star quality, who manages to disguise whatever love he may once have had for folk music. The Coens seem more intent on re-creating a time in America, only to mock it with sardonic detachment. Yet their movie is set on the cusp of one of the most fascinating times in American musical history. Why feature a guy on the fringes, with few redeeming features, other than concern for a wayward cat?

Plus, I hate the fact that reviewers persist in saying that Llewyn Davis is based on Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk. It’s not. There are a few tidbits taken from his entertaining autobiography, but Van Ronk was never a scuffling dead beat like Davis. He was big, at least in folk music circles. At one time, Dylan said his only ambition was to be as “big” as Dave Van Ronk. Here’s a fascinating take on the movie by Terri Thal, Van Ronk’s wife at the time.


(I love this old photo of Dylan, girlfriend Suze Rotolo — on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — and Dave Van Ronk.)

My view will be much in the minority, since the Coen brothers are such great film tacticians, seemingly incapable of making a bad movie. They, themselves, have expressed the hope that Inside Llewyn Davis will inspire others to discover the great folk music of the past. They have might have done better driving others to the sounds of those good old vinyl discs by making a movie that was less sour and more heartfelt.

Yet I do thank the brothers for returning this aging folkie, at least, back to the music he loved so much as a callow, know-it-all youth. The last few days have been full of mellow nostalgia.